The Administration of the Lord’s Supper in Reformed Evangelical Presbyterian Churches

George W. Bancroft, B.Sci., M.Div., Th.M.

(10th January 2019) (update: 7th October 2021) (update: 6th December 2021)

This article is particularly written to readers who are reformed evangelical including church officers who confess a 16th or 17th century reformed evangelical confession, catechism, and church order. (Let us remember again that a faithful reformed evangelical ministry and a Protestant evangelical ministry are the same. The label ‘reformed’ is referencing works of reformation; and the label ‘Protestant’ is referencing the protest against sects and heretics.) We are also particularly addressing reformed evangelical Presbyterians who think in terms of connectionalism and true unity (Phil. 1:27; 2:2); and therefore knowledgeable Presbyterian church officers strive for uniformity and have a concern for a whole denomination in accordance with Scripture, including initial and progressive sanctification. In contrast, reformed evangelical semi-Presbyterians or  Congregational-Independents or Baptists tend to be focused on their own congregation, or perhaps connected to some kind of mere association or denomination without concern for uniformity; but we are not particularly addressing neo-reformed church officers, unless they show signs to be teachable. They are not committed to the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and obedience and have often chosen to use sectarian Bibles (see RSV, NIV, and ESV), with little or no regard for fencing the Lord’s table in accordance with the reformed evangelical faith (see I Cor. 1:10; 5:1-13; 11:18-19; II Cor. 11:3-4; 13:5 KJB).

According to the Westminster Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645-48), there was to be uniformity throughout the representative denominations as much as possible in the administration of the Lord’s Supper * (Church of Scotland, Church of England and Church of Ireland) in the following areas: (1) The practice of Close Communion with catechetical preaching through the heads of doctrine in the Larger/Shorter Catechism and also catechising of children (Westminster Form of Presbyterian Church Government- WDPW, Pastors; Of the Ordinances in a particular congregation); (2) Synodically uniform decreed frequency of Communion in Scotland; but as Presbyteries were being formed in England and Ireland, allowance for individual sessions to administer the Lord’s Supper every second month, quarterly, or twice yearly in England (WDPW, Of the Celebration of Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper); and (3) The administration of the Sacrament with the distribution at a definite table, in the front of the church, during a regular service and to be administered directly after a sermon, with wine, common cup, and breaking of leaven bread (WDPW, Of the Celebration of Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper). Now we ask the reader to be patient to read this entire article with the proof of the above assertions, with answers to questions/objections; and also to be prepared for an explanation for how a reformed evangelical Presbyterian session can phase out of weekly or monthly communion, coming back into conformity with the administration of the Sacraments in the Larger Catechism and the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God.

It may be asked at this point, why the mention of every second month as a view likely presented at the Westminster Assembly with reference to how ‘often’ Communion should be administered in Presbyterian congregations (see LCQA 177)? The answer is that the view of “once every two months” Communion (six times a year) was decreed in the Synod of Dordt Church Order 1618-19 for the entire national church (Art. 63), with the qualification that vacant charges (without a minister) may have Communion less often. Furthermore, according to the Three Forms of Unity and the Synod of Dordt Church Order 1618-19, there was to be uniformity throughout the denomination in the following areas: (1) the practise of Closed or Close Communion with catechetical preaching through the heads of doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism, with references to the Canons of Dordt, and also catechising of children (Art. 61); and (2) the administration of the Sacraments with communicants gathering around a definite table, during a regular service, and to be administered directly after a sermon (Art. 62).

(1) In accordance with I Corinthians 11:18-19 (KJB), close Communion or closed Communion was the practise in 17th and 18th centuries in Holland, Scotland, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland, wherein only communicant members of the Church of Holland took communion (see Synod of Dordt Church Order, Art. 61). In the case of the sister denominations, the Church of Scotland, (Presbyterian) Church of England, and (Presbyterian) Church of Ireland, when fully subscribing to the Westminster Church Standards, communicant members of one denomination could partake of Communion in other synodically established sister denominations; but mere session controlled communion would not work with reference to uniformity and trust between denominations.

In the case of the 1618-19 Church of Holland, they had no synodically established sister denominations outside of the kingdom of Holland. Until there might be a synodically decreed established sister relationship, the scripturally logical choice was closed Communion: “None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who, according to the usage of the Church to which they unite themselves have Confession of Religion, besides being reputed to be of a godly conversation, without which also those who come from other Churches shall not be admitted” (Art. 61) Initially, the Church of Holland may have been even restricting the partaking of Communion to one’s own congregational communicant membership as well, being concerned about travelling deceivers and due preparation. This practice would parallel Congregational-Independents and reformed Baptist congregations in England, who practiced closed Communion; but eventually the system of consistory letters was used for travel and moving within the same denomination. Yet, in the Church of Holland, it remained closed or close Communion within the same denomination until there was the establishment of dominion and overseas congregations (e.g., colony of New York) and sister denominations.

The same development could have occurred in Scotland and Ireland. The churches may also have begun with closed Communion within congregations in the 16th and early 17th centuries; but as travelling increased within kingdoms, travelling communicants were allowed to take Communion in other congregations by session letter for travel and transfer, with due preparation. In time, the system of allowing for letters of standing or transfer between synodically decreed sister denominations was fully developed. This brought close Communion into prominence and is most agreeable to and in accordance with I Corinthians 1:10, 11:18-19, and Philippians 1:27 (KJB). For membership departure, the system of disjunction certificates developed as a letter of standing when leaving and not a transfer of membership within the same denomination or sister denominations. Close Communion does not grant membership transfer to unknown churches, with no sister denominational status, not having any confessional trust relationship to make such a transfer. Yet it should also be remembered that those moving to other areas always remain members of the Christ’s universal visible church (WCF 25:2), wherein confessional vows are first and foremost given to Christ, as King and Head of the Church.

(2) With a cursory reading of the WDPW and 20th and 21st centuries influence, it might be thought that having Communion ‘often’ would favour monthly Communion; but with a thorough study of the Larger Catechism with the WDPW (Of the Celebration of Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper), the natural interpretation is that Scotland would be free to decree Communion twice yearly. In time, the Church of Scotland would phase out quarterly Communion for denominational uniformity in preparation, considering a shortage of ministers and vacant charges. England and Ireland, having not had Presbyterian Church subordinate courts before 1645, would have each congregational session determine the frequency of Communion: for example, every second month, quarterly, or twice yearly. With reference to any representatives at the Westminster Assembly, who might have favoured weekly Communion, this view was not included in the completion of the Larger Catechism and the WDPW. Weekly Communion might fit Congregational-Independents and semi-Presbyterians; but it does not fit in Westminster Presbyterianism with uniformity and concern for congregations without a minister. Instead, preparation Communion was recorded and adopted in the Church of Scotland and for newly formed presbyteries in the Church of England and the Church of Ireland.**

Certainly, preparation Communion functions reasonably well in Presbyterian churches with all three denominational views of frequency: every second month, quarterly, and twice yearly; but quarterly or twice yearly Communion is the most versatile and functional in national Presbyterian churches for the following reasons:*** (1) adequate time for new applicants and the Session to organise extra time on Saturdays for thorough examination for communicant membership; (2) suitable time for Larger Catechism assessment in sanctification of the truth, congregational peacemaking (see Rom. 12:18: Heb. 12:14), and organising business and family commitments for preparation services; (3) ordinary shortage of faithful ministers in genuine reformed evangelical denominations and having to travel for preparation services and Lord’s day services to vacant charges; also concern for ministerial travel between congregations, within medium and large size countries, including dominion and overseas congregations.****

(3) With proper implementation of Westminster Confession 29:7-8, Larger Catechism Question and Answer 171, 172, 173, 174, 175, 177, and the WDPW (Of the Celebration of Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper), Presbyterians should conclude the following in the administration of the Lord’s Supper: (1) It should be administered directly after a sermon; and also it is judged to be convenient to have the Lord’s Supper in the morning worship service in settled congregations; evening worship is certainly acceptable especially in vacant congregations (see Acts 20:7-12), but attendees can be concerned for not getting home too late on the night of the Lord’s day; (2) When the scheduled Lord’s Supper comes around on the calendar, at a mid-week service or on Friday or Saturday evening, there should be a preparatory service; but in vacant congregations, there might be the necessity to have the preparatory sermon on the Lord’s day before; (3) When the Lord’s Supper is scheduled to be administered on the Lord’s day, church officers are to set up a definite table in the front of the congregation with reference to the genuine symbol of the Lord’s table and fencing of the table of the Lord from visitors and baptised members; and that no altar or small table as furniture should be allowed on other days in its place; (4) There is to be the word of institution (namely, a ministerial table talk) and blessing of the elements in prayer; (5) The elements of the Lord’s Supper are to be wine, common cup, breaking and passing of the bread; and (6) there can be a retiring offering for the needy (Jn. 13:18, 28-30 KJB).

Since public worship and the Lord’s Supper are not to be hurried, it is best to allow for an 1½ to 2 hours, for the entire worship service including the Lord’s Supper. The communicants, and only the approved communicants, should get up from their chairs, walk up, and sit at the table of the Lord (and 4 stanzas of a psalm to be sung is most appropriate, coming and leaving the table). It is best not to sit simply in the front row or second rows of chairs or pews, not being all at the table. With reference to making clear the practice of close Communion for the visitors, before the communicants proceed forward, the minister should explain preparation close Communion and the fencing of the Lord’s table (see also LCQA 173; WDPW, Of the Celebration of Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper).

With what has been proven in the above about the legislative intent of the Larger Catechism and the WDPW, how may a reformed evangelical Presbyterian session phase out of weekly or monthly communion, in favour of preparation Communion? The following process is recommended: (1) first teach and discuss it in Session for a few months, acknowledging that close Communion and preparation Communion are not definitely required to be a faithful reformed evangelical church; but that the Larger Catechism with the WDPW does present the case of its closer conformity to Scripture and to be indeed commended for progressive sanctification in the truth, the pursuit of holiness, and congregational peacemaking; (2) once agreeing in the Session to make the full and gradual transition, it is prudent to make an announcement to the congregation of definite neglect of the Larger Catechism and a proper study of Scripture on Communion; (3) begin preaching through the heads of doctrine with the outline of the Larger Catechism (textual preaching, rather than topical preaching, is recommended in the WDPW, Of the Preaching of the Word); (4) change to every second month Communion; (5) after one year of reformed evangelical Presbyterian preparation Communion, the session may opt for six times yearly, quarterly or the Scottish twice yearly. Busy farmers, ranchers, tradesmen, businessmen, professionals, and ladies of the estate would soon experience that the Communion season will come around frequent enough at two to six times a year, wherein some are quite satisfied with quarterly Communion. The vacant charges-congregations can then have a minister come and administer Communion at least twice a year.

The writer will now deal with three objections/questions to what has been taught concerning the Lord’s Supper in the Larger Catechism and the WDPW. (1) How can it be said that having preparation Communion often, is most conducive to be quarterly, twice yearly, or perhaps every second month? Why not consider scheduled monthly Communion?  ****  Congregations who have practised preparation Communion for one to two years, the minister and the elders have found that Communion two to four times a year is quite conducive to due preparation (see LCQA 171-172, 175, 177). (2) Is it necessary that the WDPW be used to assist in interpreting the Larger Catechism? It is part of the legislative intent meaning of the original writers and signers of the Westminster Church Standards with specific reference to public worship. (3) Can communicants of one congregation travel to partake more frequently in other nearby denominational congregations? Some may consider occasional travel to hear preparatory sermons in the middle of the week and before the Lord’s day; but it is not recommended for communicants to ordinarily travel to partake more frequently, calling into question their own genuine preparation. Furthermore, they should not be away very often from their own local settled congregation or mission congregation, noticeably vacating the pews or chairs.

Next we will answer some possible questions from reformed evangelical sessions committed to preparation Communion. (1) Is it necessary that everyone sit around a table in chairs, rather than in the front rows of the pews, as well as breaking of the bread and passing the bread around? In the Lord’s Supper, in the New Testament, repentant believers broke bread starting with the minister, representing Christ, and passing the elements around a definite table (see also WCF 29:3; LCQA 168-169). It is part of the communicant’s fellowship together; and anyone having not followed Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:18, Hebrews 12:14, and I Peter 3:11 in the congregation can be reminded of neglect by sitting at the table breaking bread. (2) Can it be concluded that ‘leaven bread’ was used at the table of the Lord in the New Testament? No reference and no emphasis is made in the New Testament in favour of unleaven bread; but most importantly, reformed evangelical Presbyterians fully committed to the Westminster Church Standards, with full abrogation of the ceremonial law, are often consistent and use ‘leaven’ bread in New Testament public worship. (3) Is a common cup necessary? Whilst theistic evolutionists and inconsistent six day creationists might object to a common cup, the curse of disease or affliction of illness for God-fearing repentant believers is under God’s full and complete control at all times; and speculation of transmission of illnesses and/or stress is simply a medical evolutionary guess, with little or no regard to God’s Sovereignty or moral law in creation and Providence. Furthermore, we find no such concern for germs or even airborne germs any where in the Scriptures (see Mk 14:22-23: Jn 9:1-11); and any effort to make Jesus or the prophets ignorant of alleged future evolutionary “medical” studies is unacceptable; and it is part-n-parcel of failing to hold to and practice the Scriptures to be the only rule of faith and obedience. If the Son of God had been concerned, He would have no doubt employed individual cups in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Being in accordance with Scripture, pastors should gradually teach from the pulpit, and churches in time, should implement a common silver challis with definite alcoholic wine; and as far as concern for or complaint from basic adherent Christians, the Lord’s Supper is for professing Christians who have an accredited profession with grounding and settling in the gospel body of divinity, and placed into the Shorter Catechism. Again the common cup reminds communicants to follow Romans 12:18 in preparation for partaking at the Lord’s table. In the event of larger congregations, some reformed evangelical congregations might have two tables with two common cups; or they may have two gatherings at the table, coming forward and returning, with two distinct table talks. (4) Can sessions consider allowing for a few individual cups at the table, if requested? Such a practice should not be done for the purpose of employing very low-alcoholic wine (namely, non-alcoholic wine or grape juice). Very low-alcoholic wine was invented in the 20th century with the use of strong chemicals or a process that changes the chemical make-up of wine. God created original seed grapes have always had a small alcoholic content. Besides the unknown health risks for consuming very low-alcoholic wine, this practice would divide the congregation over creation and church ordinances concerning original seed grapes and organic wine to be a blessing from God in moderation and even for health (Psa. 104:15; I Tim. 3:3; 5:23); and there should be no concern over professing Christian visitors, claiming to be “offended” or claiming to be recovering “alcoholics”, since they will not be partaking under close Communion.  *****

Now let us deal with the final objection on some readers minds with reference to certain teachers having very strongly argued in favour of weekly communion in the late 20th century. Many theonomic reconstructionists have taught with vigour in favour of weekly communion. As these teachers moved towards Baptismal regeneration and justification by faith plus works, they actually went beyond the error of simply emphasizing frequency in relation to an automatic sanctifying affect of the administration of the sacrament. Let us put it plainly for those who understand the teaching of the Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox sect and its followers. The congregants of these sectarian churches “feel the need” for weekly communion as some kind of contrived peace of conscience, since justification by faith plus works cannot bring genuine peace of conscience with biblical assurance of Salvation (see A Call to Reformation and to Unify in the Reformed Evangelical Faith; Part II).

The Westminster Church Standards do not teach an automatic sanctifying effect of the Lord’s Supper. The original writers and signers taught that preparatory communion, with the preaching of the Word and the word of institution (table talk) in public worship, is best suited for sanctification in the truth for worthy receivers (WCF 29:7; LCQA 170); and worthy partakers have been effectually called with initial sanctification, have exercised true saving faith, and are being sanctified in the truth every week with the preaching of the Word, public and private worship, plus preparation communion administered often.

Finally, it has been speculated that John Calvin favoured weekly Communion and settled for monthly Communion, as studied and agreed to in the Geneva consistory. There is no thorough printed defence of John Calvin concerning frequency of Communion. If he for awhile considered weekly Communion, and then the Consistory convinced him otherwise, credit needs to be given to the consistory elders for settling on monthly Communion instead; but implementing monthly communion in Geneva meant that the worthy receivers could not have practiced much preparation for Communion as later intimated in the Synod of Dordt 1618-19 and taught in the Larger Catechism.

*  In the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), in section one, it makes this statement concerning uniformity in doctrine, form of government, worship, and practice: “and shall endeavour to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church-government, directory for worship and catechising”. This covenanted goal was accomplished in the confession of faith, form of church government, and catechising; and it came narrowly close in frequency of communion in the WDPW.

**  It has been noted by some church historians that some ministers who spoke of ‘gathered churches’, instead of ‘parish churches’, might have favoured weekly Communion. The term ‘gathered’ was a term used by English Congregational-Independents, whilst Presbyterians often employed the term ‘parish’, indicating that ordinarily families should attend congregations in nearest proximity to their homes. Reformed evangelical Congregational-Independents, not favourable to preparation Communion, might employ weekly Communion without regard to other congregations who temporarily have no pastor. Those adopting preparation Communion would follow reformed evangelical Presbyterians in accordance with the Larger Catechism.

***  It simply cannot be concluded that only vacant charges, without calendar scheduled Communion, would have a preparatory service(s) in the middle of the week or on the Lord’s Day before. Instead all congregations would have a preparatory service(s) implementing Larger Catechism Question and Answer 171 and 174. Yet the concept of weekly Communion would have no regard for much if any preparation for the Lord’s Supper.

****  Ordinarily reformed evangelical Presbyterian denominations will have a shortage of ministers of the Word. Since the mid-20th century neo-reformed Presbyterian churches began to have an abundance of “teaching elders”; but many faithful reformed evangelical churches take the call to the office of the gospel ministry (see LCQA 158) very seriously and favour senior ministerial tutoring and/or part-time pastor theological colleges training students for the ministry. Lay evangelism and the stirring up of people to go to independent theological training centers to be full-time “teaching elders”, or to have a “counselling ministry”, is unbiblical and promotive of a sectarian gospel (see A Call to Reformation and to Unify in the Reformed Evangelical Faith; “Conclusion”).

*****  There are some experimental toxic cancer treatments, wherein the immune system becomes very weak, requesting even in the household to take extra care. Sometimes the immune system has become so weak that church attendance all together is discouraged. In this case, this gospel ministry would respectfully counsel, as he himself would do, against accepting such treatment altogether; and instead this minister would respectfully seek to give a whole counsel of God approach to illnesses and healing of the body, including seeking differences of opinion among various types of physicians (see “a sober use of … physick”, LCQA 135). Nonetheless, there should be respect for differences of opinion; however, this minister would contend that with advancing reformation such experimental toxic treatments, based on evolutionary and ‘theistic’ evolutionary experimentation, should be phased out in time. Those who took such experiemental toxic treatment with then a weakened immune would likely just stay home and try to recover.

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